U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called it the largest opioid-related fraud bust in U.S. history.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said the huge fraud crackdown was aimed at stopping opportunists from taking advantage of a “national scourge,” the nation’s killer opioid epidemic.
But a huge nationwide sweep of health-care fraud cases announced Thursday inexplicably sidestepped the biggest health-care fraud in Florida: addiction treatment. A nationwide opioid crisis that took thousands of lives last year ended up being more of a prop to round up disparate health care fraud cases for the Justice Department.
Only one case in Florida involved addiction treatment.
Jeff Danik, a former FBI agent who once headed the West Palm Beach office, said it’s common for federal agencies to save up a bunch of random cases and act on them all at the same time. “They do it regularly, especially in health care fraud, bankruptcy fraud,” he said.
Why? Because it generates headlines — and the attention of medical professionals who are the foundation for such fraud.
“You get more attention for the deterrent factor,” he said. “The more doctors and gatekeepers — the licensed professionals who are supposed to put the brakes on fraud — that’s who they’re trying to reach.”
Charged across the nation are 412 people, including 52 doctors, accounting for $1.3 billion in fraudulent billings. Sessions said that 205 health care professionals also are being suspended or banned from participation in any federal health care programs.
The lone addiction treatment case in Florida took place in Palm Beach County. Eric Snyder, who federal authorities raided three years ago in Delray Beach, was arrested this week along with an associate. The treatment center operator and sober home owner is charged with fraudulently billing insurers $58 million over nearly five years and was prominently mentioned by Sessions.
“Every day, as a result of drug abuse, American families are being bankrupted, broken apart … and promising lives and careers cut short,” Sessions said during a news conference. “Drug addiction is causing more crime and violence in our communities. Too many medical professionals like doctors and nurses and pharmacists have chosen to violate their oaths and put greed ahead of their patients.”
It’s not that other types of fraud were overlooked. Prosecutors charged 77 defendants in South Florida. But none appears to involve addiction treatment, save Snyder and his associate, Christopher Fuller.
The criminal complaints involved a compounding pharmacy and home health care providers. There were cases of typical health care fraud involving charging Medicare for services not provided and even charges involving assisted care facilities.
Of 13 cases in Michigan or California, only one appeared to involve addiction treatment fraud. Others alleged such crimes as pharmacy fraud, illicit sales of prescription drugs and hospice kickbacks.
One involved some men who broke the front window of an Arkansas pharmacy and made off with pills. One involved a Virginia woman who was faking sickle cell anemia to get narcotics.
Sarah Schall, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, said in an email response: “Today’s announcement does not encompass all of the work the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our partners are doing to combat the varied health care fraud schemes, sober homes/addiction center abuses and prescription drug/opioid issues.”
Schall added, “We can assure you that we continue to investigate fraud and corruption in South Florida.”
Sessions and Price highlighted the opioid crisis in announcing the slew of cases, some of which included defendants who had already been sentenced. The Justice Department said 120 people involved in the prescribing and distribution of narcotics were among those arrested.
Sessions noted at his news conference on Thursday morning that an American dies of a drug overdose every 11 minutes. “Every day, as a result of drug abuse, American families are being bankrupted and broken apart, friendships ended, and promising lives cut short,” he said. “Drug addiction is causing more and more crime and violence in communities across the country.”
While only one of the federal cases involves fraud in South Florida’s drug treatment industry, the Palm Beach County Sober Home Task Force has made 30 arrests in the past eight months. In those cases, treatment center operators are accused of paying kickbacks to sober home operators for insured addicts. Already, seven of those charged have pleaded guilty and have agreed to cooperate with investigators.
State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who headed the task force, said there will be more arrests and welcomed any federal intervention, especially on insurance fraud.
“We need cooperation of our federal partner,” Aronberg said, adding that the state attorney’s office has focused on patient brokering. Federal officials are better equipped to charge on insurance fraud, and the federal charges carry the potential for bigger fines and longer prison sentences, he said.
Many in the drug abuse recovery industry were excited after Sessions’ remarks, thinking that law enforcement efforts to root out bad actors seen in Palm Beach County may now be taking a national scope.
“We have always recognized this is not limited to a Southeast Florida problem. It is a problem in other areas of our state and it is a problem in other states,” said John Lehman, the CEO and board chairman for the Florida Association of Recovery Residences.
Justin Kunzelman, a recovering addict and the CEO of Rebel Recovery, was skeptical of the timing of Thursday’s announcement, noting it comes as Republicans are trying to overhaul the Affordable Care Act.
“I can’t believe they genuinely care about the state of the treatment industry. It would seem more like kind of an opportune time with the health care bill for them to garner support for the insurance industry,’’ he said. “It’s insane to me. It just shows that to those in power, drug users aren’t important.’’
The opioid crisis has received nationwide attention lately as critics of the repeal plan for Obamacare say it will exacerbate the epidemic.
There was hardly a cavalcade of lawmakers issuing statements heralding what Sessions said was such a historic moment.
Lehman emphasized that the nation can’t arrest itself out of the opioid epidemic.
“The overarching issue is there is a very real opiate crisis with 60,000 people losing their lives last year (from drug overdoses). The problem is far from being resolved,” he said. “There is a real dire need for qualified, ethical, law-abiding addiction treatment providers and recovery support support.”
Johnnie Easton, whose daughter died of a heroin overdose, said there needs to be more than just a public relations push by the Justice Department. She says the current treatment model for 30 to 90 days is failing.
“We need boots on the ground. We need treatment that is evidence-based,” said Easton, who is a former aide to Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinley. “In the time it took me to read this press release, there were five to 10 more families that got a death notification.
‘“I want to hear what we are doing to make treatment beds available,” Easton said.
Staff writer Mike Stucka and researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.